Reading Your Pet’s Reactions

chance_truckAs I drove my truck into the automatic carwash today and put it into neutral, the conveyer belt grabbed my tire and began to pull my truck forward, I felt my heart rate pick up, and a small wave of anxiety pass over me. I looked down at my shifter twice to make sure the vehicle was, in fact, in neutral. After that brief moment passed, I wondered why I had that reaction? I’ve taken cars through washes for years and never had a second thought about it.

Well, I quickly deduced my reaction was in response to my last experience in that exact same car wash from a month previous. I had gone in just like any other time, waiting for the sign to turn from Green-Forward to Stop-Put Your Car Neutral. Only this time I was preoccupied with something, and rather than shift my car into neutral, I accidentally shifted it into second gear. Not realizing this right away because my truck’s tire was blocked and being pulled along on the conveyer system. Suddenly, it accelerated over the block and started moving forward on the track. This wouldn’t be so bad, except for the fact that there was a car only one half car’s length in front of me. I slammed on the breaks, popped the truck into neutral and waited for the next block to carry me out. Although this wasn’t a life or death situation, or super scary, it was surprising and gave me a jolt.

Which brings me back to today’s car wash. My brain and body remembered what happened last time, and my sympathetic nervous system wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again.

Immediately, I began to think how this relates to our animals.

To the naked eye, I’m sure no one would have known that I had a brief moment of “oh crap this isn’t going to happen again, is it?” But that is exactly what I was thinking. If such a minute experience could have that kind of impact on me, what does that mean for our animals? They may have their own versions of these experiences that we are not aware of.

Reading your pet’s reactions

Our pets can’t articulate to us what it is that scares them. They can’t always tell us about their previous experiences, ones that may have had lasting impressions on them. Situations that may cause them to stop, panic, flee or fight.

It’s up to us as their guardians to keep them safe, and have them feel secure. Taking notice of your pet’s changes based on the environment they are in can give great clues about their comfort level.

These subtle changes can help in guiding you while you journey into doing systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning with an animal that is fearful or reactive in an environment or towards certain individuals.

It’s beneficial for management too. Reading your dog’s body language can alert you as to when he’s had enough social time with his dog friends, or visiting nursing homes… you name it. All animals have their limits, have their thresholds, and need breaks before they reach them.

My take away today was to be more aware of how my animals are responding and acting. If something seems to spook them, or they are acting out-of-the-ordinary, then I need to take a step back and access the situation.

  • What was the trigger(s)?
  • What was my pet’s response?
  • What was the consequence of the behavior; meaning what happened after my pet reacted?

From there I can build ways to prevent the event from happening again, or figure out how to work through it by changing the environment to set my pet up for success.

An example

Large, cargo vans driving within 15 feet of the dog and person while on a walk. The dog’s behavior is to stop, crouch and then try to bolt in the opposite direction of the van, but can’t because he’s on leash. So he makes himself low, ears back, tail tucked.

After the truck has passed, the dog is hyper-vigilant and reluctant to move. If the person allows any slack in the leash, the dog continues to attempt to bolt with low body posture until the truck is at least several blocks away. Then the dog can relax a bit more and resume going on the walk.

What can we do?

We can change the Antecedent (what comes before the dog’s behavior). That could be accomplished by walking the dog in areas where cargo vans don’t travel, taking that option out of the equation.

We could also change the consequence for the cargo van coming near by combining classical-conditioning and desensitization. As of right now, the consequence is that the dog wants to add distance between him and the van, and to do it quickly.

At a distance where the dog has not gone over threshold and is still checking in with his person, the person can positively reinforce the dog for noticing the van. They can do this using treats, toys, and adding distance between the dog and the van, meaning the person and dog walk away from the scary van.

Gradually they move closer to the van, and the person waits for the dog to communicate that he’s comfortable at that distance before advancing to the next level. Watching for body language signals that the dog is aware of the trigger and choosing a different option than the previous panic and flee is key to knowing when the dog is comfortable and ready to progress. This kind of communication with animals, where they have some choice in the matter and are treated humanely through the process, builds the strongest bonds between people and animals.

Obviously this is just a slice of what types of training and behavior modification could be done for this particular case.

Next time you’re out and about with your dog, be mindful of how your dog is responding to the environment. If you notice behavior changes, what are they? What can you do to help your dog, or what have you been doing?

Rocket Recall: Part III

If you haven’t already, get started with parts I & II:

Rocket Recall: Part I
Rocket Recall: Part II


This is the final installment of Rocket Recall. This week we will talk about pressure and distractions with our dogs. Even with all the best preparation and practice, there will be times when your dog will not want to come away from something. This is where pressure comes into the equation. It is very important that our dog comes when called, like previously stated, this could save his life someday.

Again, we want to make sure our dog is ready for this next step before we get started. If your dog has not accomplished the first two levels of Rocket Recall, then they are not ready to begin this level. Each level can take weeks to accomplish, so don’t be in a rush. Be patient and practice, practice, practice!

Have a long-line attached to your dog when training this next level. 30-40 feet is an appropriate length for the line. Be sure the line isn’t to heavy for your dog. If you have a small breed dog, you may need to make your own long-line, which is easy enough to do*.

You’ll be enlisting the help of another person for this training as well.

Refresher:

  • Have your helper distract the dog with some low-value treats and then call your dog to come.
  • Your helper will stop treating and ignore your dog.
  • You will reward your dog with higher-value treats when he comes to you.

To step this up.

  • Have your helper open their hand with treats, when you call your dog this time, your helper will keep their hand open.
  • If your dog doesn’t respond within 3 seconds and come off your helper, you’ll pick up the long-line and gently reel them in. Again rewarding heavily when your dog comes all the way into you.
  • Do not yank your dog away
  • Do not scold him for not coming on his first try
  • Do not repeat the cue to come multiple times.
  • DO reward your dog heavily when he comes to you–with treats or toys.
  • DO be animated with your dog so that you’re more appealing to them–cheerful voice, clapping hands, kissing noise, and running away from your dog will elicit more attention.

For adding distraction, build on the Running Game.

Refresher:

  • Have your helper run away from your dog and entice them to follow.
  • You call your dog to you, your helper stops and stands still, ignoring your dog.
  • When your dog comes to you, reward.

The next step is to have your dog come even when your helper continues to run. For this, you’ll use the long-line again.

  • Have your helper run at a slower pace or a brisk walk, so that your dog won’t be following at a fast pace.
  • Call your dog, your helper will continue moving forward, but will stop enticing the dog to follow.
  • You’ll give your dog 2-3 seconds to respond, if they don’t, pick up the line and reel them in.
  • Reward your dog heavily when he comes to you.

We can’t stress enough how important it is to use high value treats, such as cut up pieces of meat, as reinforcements for your dog. Or to use high-value toys that your dog doesn’t get to play with on a regular basis. You have to be more interesting and rewarding than the other distractions in your dog’s environment.

*For long-line help, please contact me.

The Jumping Canine

The Jumping Canine

We’ve all been there, you walk into a room and bam, paws are assaulting you. Sometimes this is welcomed, but more often than not, it’s considered rude and can even be dangerous if the dog is large and knocks you over.

So why do dogs insist on jumping on us? Don’t they know it’s rude behavior?! Well, to them it’s not rude and if they’re not taught how to appropriately greet people, they will continue to jump on us.

Dogs jump up on us for multiple reasons, most often out of excitement to see us and wanting to be closer to our faces to smell and lick us like they might do to a dog friend.

If we don’t teach dogs an alternative behavior and just reprimand the jumping behavior, we may not get through to the dog what we want or worse our dog may start to fear us.

We don’t want to punish our dogs for being excited to greet us, but we also don’t want to reinforce a behavior we don’t like. That’s where teaching desirable behaviors to our companions is favorable for both humans and our canines.

The first step is preventing the dog from jumping on us at all; we need to be proactive with our dogs. If they are able to rehearse the action of jumping, they will continue to repeat those actions. And if they are repeating those actions, it is because they find the outcome rewarding.

Preventing the jump is simple, but not always easy. Here are a few tips to help with jump prevention.

  • Keep a leash on your dog when you’re home, so that you can easily step on the leash or take up the leash when people come into the home.
  • Tether your dog when guests arrive and tell your guests to approach your dog in an appropriate manner, if your dog starts to jump, have them turn away from your dog immediately. Turn back towards the dog when he has all four paws on the floor. Do this yo-yo approach until the dog is keeping all fours on the floor to receive a greeting.
  • Keep some of their meal set aside with a few goodies added, when you arrive home or when guests arrive, toss the food on the floor to keep your dog’s attention directed downward whilst creating a positive association with guests coming into your home.
  • Make use of baby gates. If you get home and fido loves to jump on you, use a baby gate or exercise pen to keep him from greeting you right at the door. When his feet are planted, you’ll greet him, otherwise ignore him.
  • Teach him to retrieve a toy. Then keep a few special toys stashed away and only bring them out when people come to the door. Toss a toy to direct your dog’s attention to do something other than jump.
  • Teach a reliable Sit or Down. Known as an incompatible behavior, dog’s can’t be jumping if they’re sitting or laying down.
  • Teach your dog to “jump” on cue. By teaching them to jump, you can easily teach them an “off” cue as well. Not only that, but after dogs learn to jump on cue they are less likely to offer the behavior unless it’s cued up.

Last, but not least, be sure to heavily reward and at a high rate for when your dog is offering other behaviors besides jumping. By rewarding what we like, our dogs are more likely to repeat what we’ve rewarded in the past.

Many of the above tips can and should be combined to increase the chances of your dog succeeding.

For more details about training, please contact me to set up a training or behavior session.

 

Tether Training

Tethers can be a useful training item, just like crates (when appropriately used). They are handy because they can moved from room to room more easily than a large crate can be and they take up hardly any storage space. How can they be used and when?

When to use a Tether

Tethers are great for teaching dogs to settle and for keeping them out of trouble. Young dogs or newly acquired can often get themselves into trouble by venturing into areas where they are prohibited, chewing on items they aren’t allowed to have or relieving themselves indoors. By keeping your pooch on a tether when you aren’t available to supervise, you can keep your dog safe and your belongings in-tact. Tethers also come in useful for when guests arrive. Your dog is kept from greeting inappropriately and your guests are allowed the chance to make it through the door safely. Then training can begin; guests can be instructed to ignore the jumping, overly excited dog and only give attention to the dog when he contains himself. Quickly the dog will learn that the only way to get guests to approach and give attention is to remain with all four feet on the floor!

How to Make a Tether

Tethers can be purchased, but are also easy to make yourself for a low cost. I create tethers out of 1/4″ coated cable, a few fasteners and some snaps (see pictures below). Tethers ranging in length from four to six feet seem to be the most convenient and useful. I typically attach the tether to a sturdy piece of furniture or I will screw an eye-hole screw into a stud in wall and attach it to there. I then supply my dog with a comfortable spot to lay down and some chew toys and/or enrichment toys. I typically do not leave my dog on tethers for extended periods of time, nor do I leave the house with them attached it. In the beginning, I will mark the behavior (e.g. Click or YES) and treat the dog whenever they are calmly laying on their bed or engaged in chewing/interacting with something appropriate. Gradually, as the dog learns how to settle in the house and how to entertain themselves with appropriate items, the tether will no longer be needed.

Free-shaping

During Bella’s visit, I decided to do some free shaping with her. This is the first time Bella has done this sort of exercise. Free-shaping is done by marking the behaviors you want when the dog offers something. Through approximations, you’re able to shape the dog’s behavior into an end behavior, what ever you choose that to be. For this game, I want Bella to interact with the box I put down (derived from the 101 Things You Can Do With a Box game). At first if she shows any interest in the box, such as, looking at it, I will “click” her for it and follow the click up with a food reward. Keeping up a high rate of reinforcement is key otherwise the dog may loose interest or get frustrated because they don’t clearly understand what is going on. Any interaction with the box gets a click, once Bella starts interacting with the box more consistently, then I can start gradually  increasing the criteria, by withholding the Click until she gives me something more. My goal for the first session is to get her thinking and interacting with the box. During the second session, my goal is to get her to put both front paws into the box.

At first, Bella is fairly focused on me, so I drop a few food lures in and around the box and click her when she is going towards or into box. I only use lures for a the first few attempts, so that I don’t create a dog that is only interacting with the box because they know treats are in there. Bella quickly learns that interacting with the box is what gets her the Click and Reward.

The first video is from day 1 and we only work for a short amount of time. I don’t want to exhaust her and I want to keep it fun. You’ll notice in the first video I click her if her paw touches the box too, even if she’s looking at me. Any interaction with the box, even if by accident, is marked and rewarded. The second day we’re able to go for a few more minutes. She retains what she learned from the day before (latent learning), so she catches on more quickly and I’m able to raise the criteria at a faster rate. We meet our goal in the end!!! Smart puppy!

Free-shaping is a fun way to get your dog to start thinking and working for you in a fun manner! It is great mental stimulation for them and can be a wonderful way to exercise your dog on rainy days! Doing these games together also builds a stronger, healthier bond between human and dog.

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